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Unlocking Opera's Secrets: A Deep Dive into "The Marriage of Figaro"

In the fascinating world of opera, where drama meets music, understanding the narrative intricacies can sometimes feel like deciphering an ancient script. I’d like to guide you through the captivating corridors of one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's most celebrated operas, "The Marriage of Figaro" Renowned for its melodic brilliance, this opera is also a labyrinth of social commentaries and complex relationships reflective of its time, yet often mystifying to contemporary audiences. While “Figaro” is Mozart’s most popular opera, it does contain some plot twists and developments that are of the time period, but usually not clear to today’s audience.

"Le Nozze di Figaro" opens against the backdrop of 18th-century societal norms. The opera cleverly portrays the dynamics between servants and nobility, encapsulating the era's tensions and the quest for personal liberty sparked by the revolution of the American colonies and which would metastasize into the French Revolution.

In Act I, Figaro learns from Susanna that the Count is restoring the “diritto feudale” or the feudal right that supposedly the lord of the manor had — to sleep with his servants’ brides on their wedding night. The Count formally renounced this (probably fictitious) right upon his marriage to the Countess. He also is embarking on a business a trip to London, and plans to take his servant newlyweds Figaro and Susanna along, Figaro acting as the Count’s envoy, representing the Count at meetings and functions. Figaro realizes that Susanna must be coming along to be a “secret ambassador”, meaning, he expects that the Count intends to tryst with Susanna while Figaro is out of the way.

Also in this act, we first meet Cherubino, a pageboy in the manor. Now while a page did various servant- like jobs, such as polishing swords, keeping the jackets clean and brushed, and sometimes conveying secret messages, they were actually in the noble household to learn how to behave like the aristocratic gentlemen they would eventually become. They were frequently relatives of the lord or lady of the manor, and would be there to learn fencing, horseback riding, music, dancing, and French, the diplomatic language of the time. That the Count is Cherubino’s role model explains why Cherubino is so reckless in his pursuit of the opposite sex!

While conversing alone with Susanna, the Count enters, and Cherubino hides, as likewise the Count hides from Don Basilio. A woman’s virtue would be compromised by being caught alone with a man in a bedroom, and the man would be responsible for restoring the woman’s honor by marrying her. To keep Cherubino silent on the Count’s comprising of Susanna, he commissions Cherubino to be sent away into the army.

The Count is the magistrate of the manor as well as the neighboring villages and townships. When issuing official documents and orders, he would affix his own seal into sealing wax on the document to prove they were legal issues. Cherubino visits the Countess’s room to ask her to invalidate commission, which the Count has forgotten to imprint his seal upon, rendering it legally not binding.

In this production’s Act III, the Countess requests Susanna to write a note to the Count, inviting him to meet her in the “boschetto” or “little wooded area”. Manor houses employed designers to plant the landscapes with gardens, hedges, trees and shrubs. Many designs included a garden pavilion or summer house (appropriately called a “folly”) surrounded by trees and bushes to provide the necessary solitude for the manor inmates in order to be alone or to meet unseen, sometimes with amorous intentions. And a servant girl would have very little need to be able to read or write, which is why Susanna has to have every line dictated several times before she can get it down in writing.

And finally in Act IV, it may seem a stretch to believe that Susanna and the Countess, dressed in each other’s clothing, would deceive others into mixing up their identities, but in the 18th century, taking off all one’s clothing and bathing was thought to be unhealthy. Body odor for the aristocrats would be covered by musk oil, citrus pomades, and other strong scents. Therefore, at night in the “boschetto”, it would be easy to mistake Susanna to be the Countess because of the Countess’s dress smelling of perfumes and oils — in contrast, the Countess would indeed be dressing in clothes that were scented with the results of Susanna’s very physical labors!


Embarking on an Operatic Journey with Marc Verzatt

This exploration into "The Marriage of Figaro" is just the beginning of our journey together through the enigmatic world of opera. My goal is to demystify the grand narratives of operatic plots, revealing the humor, humanity, and historical contexts. From decoding the motives behind character actions to understanding the cultural significances of operatic traditions, we'll unravel the mysteries that have captivated audiences for centuries.

For those intrigued by the intricacies of opera and seeking to deepen their understanding or hone their performance skills, I invite you to join me, explore coaching opportunities—both online and in-person in NYC—and discover how we can collaborate to refine and enance your artistic voice.

Stay tuned for more insights, tips, and discussions on navigating the operatic landscape. And don't forget to check out my YouTube channel for visual insights and additional resources. Together, we'll uncover the secrets behind the scores, fostering a deeper appreciation and connection to the world of opera.

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